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Former Clinton NSC staffer, Daniel Poneman, on events in North Korea

Monday, October 9, 2006
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HH: Joined now by Dan Poneman. Dan is a principal with the Scowcroft Group, named for the former National Security Advisor to the United States. And he is also a long-time friend of mine. Dan Poneman, welcome back.

DP: Great to be with you.

HH: Author also of Going Critical. Dan, just for the benefit of our audience who may not have heard you before. Would you recap your experience with the North Koreans?

DP: Sure, Hugh. Really, it began from the very first day I walked into the National Security Council with the former President Bush. At that point, we were very worried watching a facility, we didn’t know what it was. It turned out, it was a plutonium separation plant. And then of course, through the following several years, North Korea walked out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They had a robust and operating plutonium production program. And we entered into a negotiation in which we froze that program, got it under international monitoring and inspection, and got the spent fuel containing four or five bombs worth of plutonium under new cans that kept it from being diverted to weapons, at least back then.

HH: And so, you were back and forth to North Korea a number of times? Or to the De-militarized Zone?

DP: Actually, the negotiations principally occurred in Geneva. Of course, we had no, and have no diplomatic relations with North Korea. I never got further into North Korea than you can get inching over the line in the DMZ.

HH: And who did you conduct those negotiations with in Geneva?

DP: Well, the principal interlocutor on the North Korean side was a man named Kang Sok Ju, who was even higher in the heirarchy. He was, I think, a deputy foreign minister back then. His deputy was this individual, Kim Gae Gwan, who’s been the principal interlocutor when there have been these six-party talks.

HH: Okay, now judging from everything you’ve seen today, what do you think happened today?

DP: Well, number one, I think our friend, Tony Snow, and everybody are correct to be very cautious, and to make sure they get all their data right, okay? But I’m not in government now. My sense, Hugh, is that it was a nuclear weapons test. The North Koreans said there was no venting of radioactive activity. Obviously, if there had been, we would know for sure. And it was, I think, a seismic signature that could lend itself to more than one interpretation. But they certainly have enough material to do it, and people who I know, who follow this very closely, think they probably had the capability. And my hunch is that that is what happened.

HH: Now the Australian is reporting this afternoon that a second test may be under way, or preperations for, and some sources are saying it’s already occurred. Have you seen anything about that?

DP: I certainly have not. Now of course, the last time we went through this kind of episode was in 1998, when India and Pakistan went. And it would be common, as they did at that time, to do more than one test at a specific time, because this is probably the kind of thing where you have a lot of different kinds of tests you want to run, and a lot of data you want to collect.

HH: Now what are they looking for in these tests, Dan Poneman, if in fact they’re nuclear?

DP: Well, first of all, at the crudest level, you know, we get very sophisticated in our arsenals. The first question is will it go off? Remember that their primary route to the bomb, Hugh, was the plutonium route. Now the plutonium route is a much trickier engineering task than a uranium, or highly enriched uranium bomb. And you have to have often a spherical set of simultaneously timed explosions, conventional explosions, and it’s got to be timed just right. So the first thing is does it go off, and do you get a fissile yield? Now it’s not impossible, for example, that you could generate a seismic signature just with a conventional explosive that’s supposed to trigger the fissile explosion. The second thing, you know, when you get more sophisticated, would be to try to determine what’s your yield, and things that we would normally be testing when we used to have these kind of nuclear tests in our system. We would have all kinds of different hydrodynamic affects that we would be testing.

HH: Okay. Now given that we can’t see inside of these caves, do we know for sure that it’s a plutonium device, or could it be a uranium device?

DP: We don’t know for sure is the short answer. I think the presumption would be that since we have a pretty strong sense that they have enough plutonium for 10-12 devices, and we really don’t know at all what they have in terms of highly enriched uraniuim, or really, we know very little about that program at all, I think the odds are far more likely that it would have been a plutonium device.

HH: Updating my flash earlier, the Australian is now saying that the U.S. has, in fact, detected a second North Korean blast of less than one kiloton in magnitude. Dan Poneman, Wretchard, who is a retired intelligence type in the Philippines, has posted a commentary, was North Korea testing a suitcase nuke, meaning a small, small nuclear device that would give off a small sized mixed signature, and at the same time, be transportable. Your reaction to that?

DP: Well, one of the things that you do try to test, Hugh, is miniaturization. If you think of the first weapons that the United States tested back in the time of World War II, they were very, very large. And if North Korea were, in fact, to be as sophisticated as that comment would suggest, that would be an even more grave threat, I think, to our collective security.

HH: Now turning to the reaction, the United Nations Security Council condemned it. That’s the easy part. Now they’re considering sanctions, which will be the more difficult. Is there really anything you can sanction North Korea with?

DP: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It’s not easy, but they are hugely dependent on China for fuel and for food. And I think the fuel piece alone is…could potentially bring North Korea to its knees. South Korea, obviously, has been engaged in a lot of economic cooperation with North Korea. That could be curtailed. There are remittances, I think, that have already come down from Japan. And the thing that we have to bargain with, Hugh, is we are viewed, I think, in North Korea, as comprising a significant security threat. And so the whole question of security assurances that we might offer if they were to give up their nuclear option, I think, also provides some leverage.

HH: But you wouldn’t offer that now, in the immediate aftermath of their shining on the entire international community, would you?

DP: No. What I would do now, Hugh, is I think unfortunately, it has taken this to galvanize the international community. Recall that the international community was briefly galvanized in July over the missile test, and then really, nothing came of it. The question is now, can we now mount an effective set of sanctions that are sufficiently robust that it could help bring North Korea back to a willingness to return to, for example, the statement of principles they signed up to a year ago last September, with the other part of the six-party talks. I think you need both pieces. You need the leverage of pushing on the sanctions front. But if they are inclined to yield to that pressure, to be persuaded by that pressure, we need to have a place for them to go where we want them to end up, which is a non-nuclear peninsula. So you need both sides.

HH: But Dan Poneman, they signed that statement of principles a year ago, they signed the framework agreement in ’94. I mean, this is Lucy and the football time, isn’t it?

DP: No, no. Well, I think first of all, you can’t equate those two. But let me just say, Hugh, on the 1994 agreement, we bought 8 years of no plutonium. If they had not signed the agreed framework, and continued building the five, fifteen, two hundred megawatt reactors they had, they would have a hundred, a hundred plutonium bombs worth of material now. So that was a big deal. And I’ll tell you something. If I could get eight years of no more plutonium, I would take it. Now I wouldn’t give every leverage I’ve got to get it, but I think this is like a case of a debtor who breaches on a loan. You don’t just kind of walk away and forgive the debt. You roll it into a larger obligation, and that’s what I would do.

HH: So the Clinton administration was not serious about confrontation in ’94?

DP: Au contraire.

HH: …as an alternative to just letting them build?

DP: We looked very closely at a possible military option in 1994. Fortunately, as my colleague Bob Galucci has said, we got a precision-guided document. But we were well on the way to getting U.N. Security Council sanctions in June of 1994. And I believe that the Chinese would not have vetoed that resolution. And I think…and we built up our military forces in the peninsula in the months prior to that. And I think it was that combination of pressure that led the North Koreans to be willing, when Jimmy Carter showed up, to deal…

HH: Dan, we both disagree completely on the wisdom of what was done in 1994. But he knows his stuff. I want to get a couple more technical answers out of him, rather than debate my old pal. Dan, they’re talking about an embargo on ships coming and leaving North Korea. Based upon your experience with the North Koreans, how would they respond to such an action?

DP: The rhetoric, Hugh? I think they would call that an act of war. And I think there would be a lot of saber rattling. What they would do in practice? I don’t know.

HH: Is the stuff that they tested today the sort of stuff that is easily exported to both non-nation parties, and places like Iran?

DP: Yes.

HH: And how small a container can it be shipped in?

DP: Well, remember that one bomb worth of plutonium would be roughly the size of a grapefruit. So you tell me.

HH: Well, but what kind of apparatus has to go along with it? It’s not like silly putty, that you know, if you drop it on the ground, it’ll go up in smoke. They have to send it with stuff.

DP: Well, this goes back to your other comment. If they’ve got a so-called suitcase bomb?

HH: Right.

DP: Then it’s highly, highly portable, and almost impossible to detect. But you know what? Even if they don’t send all the contraptions and all that that goes along with it, simply to export the plutonium material itself is tiny and fatal. And therefore, I think that it’s a source of keen and grave concern. In fact, I’d say that’s probably the greatest imminent threat we now face.

HH: And you said that it’s almost impossible to detect. Explain that for us.

DP: Well, it’s just that it’s a little warm. I’ve actually had the experience of seeing one of these things. But you’re talking about something the size of a grapefruit, and it could be in a ship, it could be in a barrel of hay, it could be in anything you want. In fact, an old joke of one of our professors that we both had at Harvard was if you really wanted to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States, you should put it in a bale of marijuana.

HH: (laughing) Now…I can’t remember hearing that. You must have taken funny professors. My question is then, if you take that plutonium out…they fly a North Korean airline, don’t they?

DP: Their airplanes, yeah.

HH: And so it could leave any time.

DP: Yeah, and it could go by ship, and it can go over land.

HH: And so, if you take that little pumpkin worth of plutonium, and you attach it to conventional explosives, that’s not a nuclear explosion. What’s it do to the surrounding area, if you distribute that?

DP: Well, look. The whole question of if you take radioactive material, and simply blow it up, you’ll get some contamination. And you may get some radiation sickness, and perhaps some deaths. Obviously, it would depend on the specific conventional explosive, and how much radiation you got out of it. That’s not at all fissile yield of the kind that would take out Lower Manhattan, or something of that character. But as a terror weapon, it would still be extraordinarily effective. And you could…just think of what happened with the anthrax situation we had here a few years ago, and multiply that by some exponent, and that’s what you’re going to get, I think, if you had a dirty bomb, which is what you’re talking about.

HH: And then, what about the next step up from dirty bomb to actually having an event. What kind of apparatus does that require, Dan Poneman? That’s what, I guess, I’m trying to get at. How complicated…

DP: You mean, with…well, let me put it to you this way. It took the smartest people in the world to gather in secret in the Manhattan Project, and to come up with the set of equations and the simultaneous firing of these conventional explosives around a sphere of plutonium. But Hugh, that was nearly 70 years ago. That was 1944, 1945.

HH: That would be 60 years ago, but go ahead. We went to Harvard.

DP: You know, I wasn’t a math geek.

HH: (laughing) Go ahead.

DP: But the bottom line is that if you have the material, the technology is now sufficiently well known…and from what people who have actually talked to North Korean scientists have told me, they’re capabilities are sufficiently advanced, that I think we would be fooling ourselves to think that we weren’t in imminent danger, that they could have actually done this.

HH: So you really do think we are in imminent danger of export of nuclear devices to hostile parties?

DP: I wouldn’t say imminent danger, because I just don’t know. But I would say when they had one or two, I think it was very, very unlikely they’d part with any. But as they keep producing more plutonium, remember, they’re making more every day right now, Hugh. And the more they get, the more they can spare. And the more desperate they feel, the more likely they are to export.

HH: This is an unfair question, but I’m going to ask it anyway.

DP: Okay.

HH: Why didn’t, as a condition of ’94, the Clinton administration insist upon the dismantling of the plutonium facilities?

DP: Because we got every ounce of concession that we could out of the North Koreans, and here’s what we got. We got the facilities frozen. We got seals on them. We got cameras on them. We got onsite inspections on them. We got the 8,000 rods with 35-40 kilograms of plutonium recanned by Americans. And we had that thing bottled up six ways to Sunday. And again, if I were in the land of counterpane of Robert Louis Stevenson, and I could move both sides, I would have gotten more, but I wasn’t.

HH: Dan Poneman, a pleasure. We’ll check back with you as the crisis unfolds. Thank you from the Scowcroft Group.

End of interview.

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